The problem with special education

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There’s a problem with special education in the US. Marc Tucker tries to get down to the bottom of things

“The most likely explanation is that the very act of formally designating a student as a special education student lowers the expectations for that student’s performance held by everyone whose expectations count: teachers, parents, the student and their peers.”

I think Tucker’s hypothesis bears some truth. From my own experience as a special education teacher, I’ve seen how the label introduces its own set of psychological burdens. And we have a lot of kids being labeled who are simply struggling with academics, but not with any overt “disability” that can be clearly discerned.

“Far from suggesting that the top performers should learn a thing or two from us about helping special education students, we should be learning from the top performers how to keep students who do not truly need it out of special education by doing what they are doing to enable them to reach high standards in the first place.”

So how do other countries keep students out of special education?

“The top performers provide far more support than the U.S. does to families with young children—everything from cash awards to nutritional assistance to pregnant women to very long and well-supported family leave for fathers and mothers to universal, high-quality child care and early childhood education. But it does not stop there. It also includes a higher ratio of teachers to students in schools serving low-income, minority students; extra funds for schools serving large numbers of vulnerable students; coordinated social services; strong incentives for their best teachers and principals to serve in schools with large proportions of vulnerable students; more time for students who need extra time to reach high standards; close monitoring of student progress to make sure that students who start to fall behind get the help they need to catch up quickly and more time for teachers to work one-on-one and in small groups with students who need extra help.”

Reading this list, it just seems so common-sense, doesn’t it? Yet the tragedy is that there is little political will nor ideological support for these kinds of investments in the US. You start saying this kind of stuff too often, you get labeled as some kind of socialist or union shill. The reality is that when it comes to things like public education and social services, the people in the US who have the money and/or power to make things happen are most interested in things that sparkle and that offer the promise of a quick fix.

Yet Tucker also provides an interesting point in his conclusion, when he brings up the outlier in special education labeling, Finland, which labels upward of 38 percent of their kids:

“In Finland, they solved the problem by simply saying that many kinds of students need special help. Some may be gifted and some might have a hearing or vision problem. Some might need one-time-only help and others might need continuous help. In Finland, most students get “special education” help at least once in their school career. Because that is true, there is no stigma. Every school has a “special education” teacher trained to provide a wide range of special help to the students in that school who need it. This is an idea worth conjuring with.”

This definitely bears promise. In fact, this is how the special education team at my former middle school began approaching services. We recognized just how much of a stigma being labeled “special ed” had on kids, so we set about rebranding our work. We called ourselves Student Support services–because at some point, every student needs some kind of support.

Sounds a lot more positive, doesn’t it? Maybe special education as a system needs to be rebranded in this way.

Have We Got Special Education All Wrong?, Marc Tucker on Huff Post

Scaffolding vs Differentiation

My recent post on scaffolds and success criteria seemed to be useful to folks, so I thought I should share something more on scaffolding that can help to further clarify the term.

Scaffolding and differentiation are both words frequently thrown around in schools, often interchangeably and without precision. But there’s a clear distinction between the two that must be made, most especially as teachers are increasingly pressured to “differentiate” their lessons by school and district leadership with little guidance and concrete models.

So what is differentiation?

Differentiation asks teachers to plan different tasks or learning experiences for different groups of students, with the idea being that we can better meet the needs of diverse learners.

So for example, if we had our “high” student, our “medium” student, and our “low” performing student, we might provide a different text for each one in order to ensure they would be reading something at their “level.”

But there’s a problem with this. If the so-called “low” students only ever receive less complex and challenging expectations, texts, and learning experiences, they will continue to perform at a lower level.

This is why too many of our kids end up in “remedial” classes if and when they make it to college. This is why too many students consigned to a segregated “self-contained” program rarely even make it to graduation.

There’s another problem with differentiation. It demands quite a bit from a teacher to design (at least) 3 separate tasks or resources for any given lesson — time and energy that could perhaps be more effectively spent elsewhere.

To acknowledge these problems is not to say that differentiation can’t be applied effectively nor that it is universally the wrong thing to do. Structures for guided reading, for example, draw from this model and can be very effective in a school and classroom that have developed the necessary systems and routines. But these problems are big enough that they should give us strong pause before mindlessly evaluating and chiding teachers about whether they are adequately “differentiating” their lessons.

What is scaffolding, and how is it different?

The concept of scaffolding shifts how we approach meeting the needs of diverse learners.

We may have students coming into a learning experience with differing levels of knowledge, ability, or background, but rather than providing them with something different, we instead consider how we can provide the scaffolding necessary to ensure they can work together in grappling with a common task or text.

This is a shift offered by common standards, which demand a shared set of expectations for all students. For our students who may struggle in meeting these more rigorous demands, we must consider how to scaffold the concepts, procedures, and environment to support their engagement in practice with the texts and learning experiences that can enable them to meet those expectations.

This is certainly not an easy thing to do, either. But if I had to take a pick about what is going to give me the most bang for my buck, designing access and practice with common vocabulary, tasks, and texts is where I would ask educators to more wisely invest their time and energy.

For more on what that scaffolding should look like, take a look at my prior post, Scaffolding and Success Criteria.

Special Education: Inclusion or Specialized Intervention

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“Street Crowd” by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (French (born Switzerland), Lausanne 1859–1923 Paris) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0

A fair amount of academic literature calls for clinical, evidence-based models of intensive intervention for students with disabilities in K-12. Yet in the field, there is limited effective implementations of such interventions.

Models such as Response to Intervention (RTI), multi-tiered support systems (MTSS), and standard, evidence-based protocols and programs all make complete sense when you learn about them. But there’s also a problem with these interventions: they are based on clinical frames of implementation, as in a trained clinician in the given model or protocol delivers the intervention in a prescribed manner.

The daily reality of a K-12 school, however, is far from clinical. Opportunities to deliver prescribed interventions, whether in a small group or in the ideal of a 1:1 setting, are few and far between. Moreover, opportunities to be trained in such interventions are few and far between. One is certainly not trained in any given intervention in any traditional education program.

The very model of a self-contained classroom, a class in which students with more severe disabilities are separated from their peers, relies upon this clinical ideal. And again, in isolation, as an ideal, it makes perfect sense. Let’s separate out the kids with greatest of needs so we can provide them with individualized, supportive instruction.

Similarly, within an inclusive classroom, district leaders continually speak about and prescribe the need to move away from a one-teach, one assist model to a parallel, station, or team teaching model. Or they speak of the need to “differentiate” and “individualize” instruction.

Idealized models that make perfect sense and sound great, but that rarely play out that way on the ground.

A Division Between Inclusion and Specialized Intervention

There is some scholarly debate about this. Fuchs et al, in a 2010 paper, “The ‘Blurring’ of Special Education in a New Continuum of General Education Placements and Services,” provides a useful delineation into two camps they term IDEA and NCLB. The IDEA group advocates for a top-down (i.e., replicable), linear, and time-sensitive process with fewer tiers of instruction, which serves both prevention and a more valid method of disability identification. They believe in evidence-based programs at Tier 1, the strength of standard protocols in Tier 2 and Experimental Teaching for Tier 3 intervention. They believe in the importance of a distinct special education program.

On the other hand, the NCLB group focuses on a problem-solving approach based on standards. “Whereas special education remained a distinct entity in reform making in the 1980s and 1990s, many in the NCLB camp today are advocating for obscuring, smearing, dimming, and confusing special education by blurring it into general education. In their plans—however implicit—special education vanishes in all but name (and maybe in name as well).”

Research suggests that the standard-protocol approach is superior to problem solving in accelerating the progress of children with serious learning problems. However, the authors acknowledge that “because there are insufficient numbers of such protocols in many academic areas and in the higher grades, and because ‘the school bus arrives every morning,’ many practitioners may have little choice but to rely on some variant of problem solving.”

In a more recent paper in 2015, “Inclusion Versus Specialized Intervention for Very-Low-Performing Students: What Does Access Mean in an Era of Academic Challenge?“, Fuchs and other authors again examine the split between those who push for a problem-solving, inclusionary approach vs. that of “specialized intervention” approach and advocate for a focus on explicit, specialized intervention delivered in a separate setting.

Here’s a couple of provocative quotes from this paper that struck me:

“. . . access cannot be assumed even when inclusive instruction reflects state of-the-art accommodations and support. Instead, only evidence of adequate student outcomes demonstrates that access to the curriculum has been accomplished. In fact, the present analysis indicates that such access is sometimes more satisfactorily achieved under a service delivery arrangement that occurs outside the physical space of the inclusive program and using instructional methods that differ from the inclusive program. All this argues for a definition of access to the general educational curriculum that is based on empirical evidence of adequate learning— regardless of the setting in which or the instructional methods by which that learning is achieved.”

“…it is not possible to ignore students’ foundational skill deficits if progress toward CCSS is to be realized. For example, to demonstrate meaningful improvement with informational text, specialized intervention must address very low performers’ decoding, word recognition, and vocabulary deficits, and this often requires out-of-level foundational skills instruction. Therefore, although reconceptualizing access as empirical demonstration of learning, schools must also recognize that the access mandate often requires schools to provide out-of-level instruction to meet students’ needs for accessing the grade-level curriculum.”

Yet I don’t agree with the authors that putting in place explicit instructional intervention programs will solve all the problems they’ve identified with inclusionary practices. You can place my own professional stance as firmly within the “NCLB” camp outlined above. Schools are not clinics, and unfortunately, special education teachers and other personnel in school buildings are rarely, if ever, trained in the delivery of specific interventions.

In fact, I think the issue of either strong inclusionary instruction or specialized intervention comes down to the same fundamental issue: there is a general lack of instructional capacity and expertise in most schools, in addition to a general lack of curricular coherence and vision.

Either way, we certainly need to rethink how we are putting in place supports for students who struggle the most and assessing whether those supports are actually effective.

My argument, however, is to place our primary and immediate focus on establishing coherent and rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students. I thus argue for inclusion and a problem-solving approach.

A recent article in Education Next,”Reforming Remediation” neatly encapsulates the rationale for this inclusionary argument. Students placed directly in college-level statistics did far better than their counterparts in remedial classes.

While that example is focused on a higher education setting, we can find parallels in K-12 by looking at access to Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, or to difficult academic subjects such as Latin. Disadvantaged students rarely have the opportunity to experience such rigorous curriculum. Yet when they do, as Bronx Latin teacher Peter Dodington put it, “The combination of a difficult topic and a well-ordered, step-by-step curriculum allows even otherwise weak students to succeed, and gives them a new understanding of their own strengths and talents.”

If we raise our expectations and the rigor and coherency of our curriculum, then we will see more educational benefit for all students. The dire reality of poor teacher training and knowledge of the content they teach is a significant problem, but a stronger school-wide curricular program can help to assuage this.

I strongly believe in the need for specialized interventions for students who require the most support. But how can we put in place effective interventions when a strong and well-implemented core curriculum is not present?

Let’s address the foundations first before moving to the clouds.

Smörgåsbord: A Smattering of Politics and Science for Your Columbus Day Weekend

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Ed Politics and Policy

The UFT establishes a hypocritical stance towards NY State’s proposed revisions of the Common Core standards. Mulgrew says the revisions don’t go far enough. But the UFT supported the original version of the standards, then later criticized the state’s implementation of them. So what’s the problem, Mulgrew? The standards themselves, or the implementation? Or maybe it’s politics that’s the real problem here, eh.

Speaking of politics, the plot thickens in the Bronx, where an assistant principal has accused DOE officials and a state assemblyman of collaborating to prevent low income children from attending an overcrowded Riverdale public school. First, the superintendent rapidly resigned, then the school’s principal got demoted. Now, a finger is pointed at a top NYCDOE official.

In moving forward, one way the NYCDOE could show a stronger commitment to equity and school diversity is by supporting Manhattan’s District 1 in its efforts to implement a “controlled choice” model.

Speaking of lawsuits, a Detroit lawsuit challenges local control in public education by claiming that to be able to read and write is a constitutional right.

And the Supreme Court will examine just how much educational benefit a student with a disability should be expected to derive from access to a “free and appropriate education.” (That’s FAPE, for my fellow SPED heads out there.) Currently, it’s a pretty low bar.

Science

Some rough news for those of us who do professional development with teachers, as well as for those of us who are proponents of strong content knowledge: in a study of math teachers that were provided training,”teacher participation in the 93 hours of PD did not have a positive impact on student achievement,” even though the teacher’s knowledge of the math content improved.

We avoid people who give us critical feedback, to the detriment of our performance.

A useful primer and cheat sheet on cognitive biases.

“If all the kids in the world were to line up for a race, the average American child would finish at the foot of the field” (47 out of 50, to be exact).

So maybe we need to give all of our kids standing desks.

More education results in better outcomes. But “differences between educated and less educated people may be partially due to residual genetic and socioeconomic confounding.”

The more a mother’s voice imprints in a child’s brain, the better at communication that child will become.

Reading literature may not improve theory of mind.

Teaching cursive should go the way of the dodo. Writing in manuscript is just fine.

Groups in which all members talk about the same amount perform better.

People can be tricked into arguing for positions that are not their own.

 

Deaf Space

Some interesting design considerations for design of spaces that can not only provide a better environment for the deaf, but possibly a better environment for all.

Early Conflicts with Teachers Can Lead to Special Education

“The relationships preschoolers form with their teachers can predict their school performance in early-elementary school, concludes a new study.

Through statistical analyses of data on nearly 1,000 preschoolers, researchers from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education find that students who experienced conflict with their teachers in preschool were likelier to be referred for special education later on in elementary school—especially for boys whose language skills were low for their age.”

—Carmen Constantinescu, “Children’s Preschool Classroom Experiences and Associations With Early Elementary Special Education Referral” in EdWeek

College and Career Ready? Maybe neither

Last week, I wrote about how NY was moving to lower high school diploma expectations for students with disabilities. Since writing that post, the NY Board of Regents has voted in the law, effective immediately, which has created some confusion for principals.

I’ll admit I know little of the landscape of NY high school exit requirements, since I’ve spent my career at the elementary and middle school levels. What remains unclear to me is what a “local diploma” really means, and how it connects to a viable career, as some advocates for students with disabilities are saying (as reported in this Chalkbeat piece). I’m open to being further educated on this, if anyone out there wants to school me. But right now it seems to be a mechanism for diminished expectations for some students, while enabling adults to claim higher grad rates.

Chalkbeat reporters Alex Zimmerman and Annie Ma further report that “Todd Kaminsky, a state senator who pushed for the new graduation requirements, said the change isn’t about watering down standards, but paving the way for more appropriate, “project-based” measures for students who struggle to meet graduation requirements.”

It’s also unclear to me how reducing requirements for students with disabilities connects to “project-based” measures, as this is not an explicit component of the law itself, which you can view in an overview of on this document provided by NYSED. I’m all for performance-based assessment (which is maybe what Kaminsky meant to refer to—to my knowledge, project-based learning is a pedagogical strategy, not a form of assessment), but utilizing PBA does not require lowering expectations. If these supplanted the traditional Regents exams, I’d be all for it. But I still wouldn’t stand by reducing expectations for students with disabilities.

On Twitter, The74’s Matt Barnum challenged my thinking on high school diploma requirements:

His post provides an overview of research which suggests that stringent high school diploma requirements may have little of the expected benefits (increased academic achievement), while it can have many unintended downsides, such as an increase in drop-out and incarceration rates.

I find this research compelling and a fit rebuttal to the imposition of high standards without compensatory attention paid to providing alternative options.

But I still don’t think lowering expectations for an academic diploma for some, or any, students is the answer. A high school diploma should signify that a student is prepared to enter college.

Not all students are prepared to enter college, whether due to ability or interest. However, all students could be better equipped to begin a career.

The greatest underreported story of last year, in my opinion, is that dramatically greater numbers of students are now failing the GED. This is far more problematic than students failing to obtain a HS diploma.

Couple this with the general dearth of well designed and funded vocational programs and opportunities in the US.

Over in Kentucky, however, there is a more sane and equitable approach that does not require diminishing expectations, as Emmanuel Felton reports. In KY, they are building two tracks between what it might mean to be “college” and/or “career” ready, and this makes a lot of sense to me. Instead of devaluing a high school diploma just to allow states to claim higher graduation rates, we should be investing in alternative pathways to a career that are both viable and rigorous.

 

Teachers and Education Officials: Expect More from Students with Disabilities

 

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By Onlysilence (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I believe that most students with disabilities* can and should engage with the same academic content that any other student would receive. Furthermore, I believe that most students with disabilities should be held to the same academic expectations as that of their peers.

I seem to hold somewhat radical expectations for my students, if what I’m hearing from my colleagues and from NY state education officials is accurate.

I was at a meeting with fellow special education specialists in my district several weeks ago and assumed I was speaking to the choir when I shared these beliefs. I was taken aback when a number of other educators strongly disagreed. I heard my fellow educators argue that their students “can’t” be expected to do grade-level work.

When I hear the word “can’t” used by an educator to describe their students’ potential, I get so upset. I know that working with children who face significant challenges is tough work. But really?

Can’t?

I think such a perspective says more about an educator’s lack of vision than a student’s lack of ability.

When you consider disability from a historical perspective, students with disabilities have been denied access to the same expectations and content as that of other students for a very long time. They have been segregated physically, and given “different” curriculum, because no one expected anything from them.

Unsurprisingly, students so treated do not often go on to achieve success.

It was upsetting enough to hear this perspective from my colleagues here in the Bronx. But now I’m also hearing it from education officials up in Albany. There is a plan in discussion and most likely up for a vote soon to water down high school diploma requirements for students with disabilities.

We’ve been here before. NY State used to have a largely meaningless piece of paper called an “IEP diploma” for students said to have met their IEP goals, which are highly subjective measurements primarily measured by those who write them.

I know that a high school diploma doesn’t mean much these days, but it’s a slippery slope when we begin completely dismantling any measure of what academic preparedness might mean.

What kind of message do we send to kids when we lower the bar for them? We don’t expect you to be able to achieve this. You CAN’T achieve this.

But that’s the wrong message. Instead, we should be saying, What will it take for you to achieve this? And if you try and aren’t ready yet — it’s OK because there’s other options for you to have a viable career in the meantime and we will help you to get there.

Not everyone is ready for college. A high school diploma should be a sign that you are prepared to succeed academically in college, not a consolation prize.

If we truly believe that not every student is able to achieve a high school diploma, than we’d better be looking very closely at what we’re doing to build alternative pathways to careers.

But watering down academic expectations for some students is not the way to go, New York. We’re fooling ourselves if we think making it “easier” is helping any kid to succeed. We’re only making it easier for adults to continue to pretend they’re doing their jobs.

 

*an extremely wide and diverse bucket, BTW. The differences between any given disability and any given student are so vast as to be nearly incomparable. Yet we persist.

Words Matter

“Using person-first language to describe people who have mental illnesses is not just an example of political correctness. These words matter. They influence people’s attitudes, and attitudes help determine behaviors. We make assumptions about people based on the words we use, and when we use the words “the mentally ill,” those assumptions lead to lower levels of tolerance and acceptance.” [Bold added]

—Darcy Haag Granello, “Labeling people as ‘The mentally ill’ increases stigma” on The Conversation

Provide Scaffolding, Not Lowered Expectations, for Students with Disabilities

What can be done from a child’s earliest educational experience, either at home or at school, to promote what’s possible for all children?

One is people not assuming that disability means inability to access education. We see this in national studies, that people are very, very quick to modify curriculum for kids and not as quick to provide accommodations. It should be the other way around. It should be accommodate first, and modification should only be done if the child is not intellectually able to handle the content due to an intellectual disability. And, even with many kids with intellectual disabilities, modification is not necessarily required, depending upon the course. Modification of curriculum should be a suspect practice, but it starts with attitude. It starts with the notion that, from the beginning, many people look at kids like Daniel and they assume he’s incapable because he’s got so much neurological stuff going on, because that’s the nature of cerebral palsy. He couldn’t speak for many years. He speaks quite well now because he’s been given good speech therapy. In Daniel’s case, he was very fortunate as a preschooler to have a teacher who recognized his intellectual capability, even though he couldn’t speak. He also had supportive parents. Daniel’s case is one where there were many adults in his life that made a big difference.

Interview with Harvard Professor Thomas Hehir on Usable Knowledge